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Mischief against the press

September 14, 2017

“If you give me freedom of speech, I have the freedom to publish it, otherwise the privilege is useless.” — M.A. Jinnah

ALTHOUGH the effort to get an antediluvian measure against the print media adopted by the Press Council of Pakistan has been foiled — for good one hopes — the assumptions underlying the nefarious move need to be firmly repelled.

That the draft of an ordinance designed to strangulate the press was indeed prepared has been confirmed and the chickens in the information pen are in a state of panic.

The authors of the draft sought to control the press by turning the publisher’s declaration into a licence, subject to yearly renewal and liable to be cancelled at the designated authority’s whim and caprice. The design is based on a completely fallacious view of the publisher’s declaration.

Ever since the Adam’s Regulation of the East India Company days, the declaration, as the term itself implies, was an affirmation by a person that he intends to publish a newspaper titled so and so, from such and such place and with so and so as its editor. All this to only fix responsibility for whatever was published. The district magistrate concerned was bound to authenticate — mark the word — the declaration unless a publication bearing the same title had already been registered in the province. Authentication of declaration was usually a painless formality.

During the Second World War, the district magistrate of Delhi cancelled the declaration of an Urdu daily. The editor crossed the river Jamna, filed a declaration before an Uttar Pradesh district magistrate, got the paper printed in Ghaziabad, and brought it to Delhi for distribution — this while the Defence of India Rules was the supreme law. It was a common occurrence in that period that if a paper was forced to close down the publisher brought out a new one under a different name. This was the practice in Punjab too though the media was heavily controlled in this province after the 1919 nationalist upsurge.

That the draft of an ordinance designed to strangulate the press was indeed prepared has been confirmed.

It was the Ayub regime that provided, through the Press and Publication Ordinance of 1960, that authentication of declaration could be refused if the editor was not sufficiently qualified, or the publisher was not rich enough, or if he had been convicted of moral turpitude. The most unsavoury provision was that a declaration could be authenticated only if the CID/IB did not refuse clearance. Gen Ziaul Haq made authentication of declaration subject to his personal satisfaction. 

After a long struggle by the country’s journalists and editors, and finally through a Sharia court verdict, all such conditions had to be deleted in 1988.Since then, the law is that if a declaration is not authenticated within 30 days of filing it is deemed to have been authenticated.

Thus the publisher’s declaration is not a licence as assumed by the authors of the draft under reference and there is no question of its yearly renewal. Imagine the turmoil at a global scale if such a law were made in the UK or the USA and the publishers of The Times or the New York Times were asked to get their licence renewed every year.

The second atrocious feature of the draft is the provision for punitive action by the proposed Pakistan Print Media Regulatory Authority. It is the kind of suggestion that the press community of the subcontinent has been resisting for over two centuries.

The colonial power had a tradition of making special press laws to punish independent editors/ journalists mainly by asking them to deposit security. Inability to make the deposit or frequent demand for a deposit could lead to drastic action against the defaulters. Such laws were made in 1905 and 1910 and the latter measure was stoutly opposed, among others, by the Quaid-i-Azam in India’s Central Assembly. Usually these laws were meant for short periods after which they lapsed. The last such law was The Press Act of 1931. It was when security under this law was demanded from Pandit Malaviya’s paper, and the matter was raised in the Central Assembly, that Mr Jinnah made the motto-like remark quoted above.

The Press Act of 1931 was originally meant for one year but it continued to be extended till Partition and the Pakistan government used it against the national press till 1960 when the Ayub regime incorporated it in its first Press and Publication Ordinance. Agitation against it obliged the regime to promulgate a second ordinance under the same title in 1963. A daylong strike by editors, journalists and proprietors forced the regime to soften the measure somewhat and issue the second ordinance of 1963. This ordinance was used to suppress the free media till 1988.The indestructible law stood revived whenever a measure adopted to replace it lapsed, and it was buried (hopefully) forever only with the promulgation of the Musharraf ordinance of 2002.

The press community has consistently opposed a special law to punish any unlawful act and asserted its right to be tried under normal laws, and there are far too many of them: Sections 123-A, 124-A,153-B, 292, and 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code, Section 99-A of the Criminal Procedure Code, the Maintenance of Public Order Ordinance, the Official Secrets Act, the Security of Pakistan Act and the Anti-Terrorism Act. These are unjust laws and need to be drastically amended but the point is that no law meant to facilitate publication of newspapers should include punitive clauses, and certainly not of an arbitrary nature.

But we are perhaps living in a period when lawless enactments or extra-legal methods are preferred to legal processes to suit the temper of a predatory authority. The journalist community will have to be extra vigilant to ensure that the mischief in the latest draft does not raise its head again in the garb of a bill to ‘promote good journalism’.

Published in Dawn, September 14th, 2017